William Alwyn was his
own librettist for Miss Julie,
an opera based on the play by August
Strindberg. Miss Julie was first
performed for a BBC recording in February
1977 (broadcast in July that year).
This Lyrita recording boasts an extremely
strong cast (there are only four characters),
as well as having the Philharmonia Orchestra
on top form.
Of all the works I
have heard by Alwyn, this is the strongest.
In depth of conception and sheer dramatic
grasp, it is a remarkable achievement.
The score is enormously accessible and
beautifully scored. In sheer lushness
of sound it brings to mind Puccini (especially
when the melody blossoms to voices-in-octaves-at-full-pelt
verismo: try the passage when
the two lovers
discuss eloping to Lugano). Influences
listed by the annotator (Rodney Milnes)
are Janáček (ostinati and naturally
inflected word-setting), Walton, Szymanowski
and even Ravel. The very ending of the
work is tender, lyrical and completely
Alwyn was actually
intimately involved with opera, having
played the flute in opera pits as well
as conducting the UK première
of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri
and scoring missing sections of Wolf’s
Der Corregidor for that work’s
British première. Alwyn first
considered Miss Julie in the
1930s. In 1954 he began work on the
opera in conjunction with Christopher
Hassall, yet the collaboration was not
a fruitful one, so Alwyn did the job
himself, with a laudable emphasis on
condensing the text so that everything
makes its point.
There are only four
characters. Benjamin Luxon, in the opening
scenes, sets out his qualities as a
heroic baritone, declaiming Jean’s lines
to great effect and coming across as
superbly authoritative, bursting with
confidence. Kristin (the cook) is taken
by mezzo Della Jones. Jones is quite
a light mezzo (entirely fitting for
this part) who finds much expression
in the melodies she is given. In Act
II she plays the part of the suspicious,
jealous lover with real venom.
Miss Julie’s first
entrance comes in the form of a thrice-repeated
call of the name ‘Kristin!’. It immediately
invokes a much-recontextualised call
of ‘Parsifal!’ by Kundry in Act II of
Wagner’s music-drama; was such referencing
conscious, I wonder?. When she enters,
Jill Gomez projects the coquettish flirting
of Miss Julie impishly while also portraying
her as a character of some maturity.
Her ‘aria’ at the close of Act I Scene
1 (‘Midsummer Night, O night of magic’,
CD 1 track 12) is marvellously tender,
mysterious and yearning. Alwyn’s spider’s
web of a string accompaniment is breathtakingly
beautiful. It opens out into a Puccinian
climax for Jean and Miss Julie. Vilem
Tausky paces this important scene to
perfection, the lovers’ disappearance
unutterably tender; Kristin’s discovery
of the empty stage and her spitting
of the word ‘Bitch!’, moving and yet
in its own way amusing.
The same Puccinian
fragrance informs the orchestral prelude
to scene 2, just before Jean and Miss
Julie enter from the garden, Jean calling
for Kristin. That fragrance reaches
the heights of perfumed eroticism, nothing
less, at Miss Julie’s cajoling, ‘And
it’s Midsummer Night, if you want an
excuse’ (alongside the stage direction,
‘She challenges him with her eyes’).
Gomez floats the high line here beautifully,
like some siren luring her sailor to
his death, while her Salome-allusions
are most striking (Act I Scene 2; track
17, ‘Would you like me to dance and
shed my seven veils …’). Ulrik, the
final character to enter, near the end
of the first act, is sung by John Mitchinson,
who does a good ‘tipsy’, and has a very
strong upper register.
The powerful, post-coital
Act II shows a distinct change in the
relationship of Miss Julie and Jean.
Everything unravels in this act, culminating
in Miss Julie’s leaving to commit suicide.
Alwyn cranks up the tension. On-stage,
this opera must pose an Everest-like
challenge to the soprano, such is the
sheer amount of time she spends singing.
Perhaps one of the most striking moments
is the hypnotic accompaniment (slow-moving
strings) to Miss Julie’s words, ‘Scum
on the surface of the water – sinking,
sinking – down, down, always down’.
The Philharmonia throughout
plays with the utmost intensity, alertly
catching the frequently shifting moods.
Each act fits snugly
onto a single disc. There are two essays
in the accompanying booklet to this
release – excellent background to the
opera from Rodney Milnes, and ‘Alwyn
and Strindberg’ by Cecil Parrott. In
addition, there are some reprints of
Alwyn’s writings on opera in general
and Miss Julie in particular,
plus a detailed and useful synopsis.
The time is ripe for
a re-evaluation of this opera. Interesting
to note that two separate critical sources
(Gramophone and the Good CD
Guide) both referred to Miss
Julie as ‘full-blooded’. Rightly
so, though, for Alwyn in this work refuses
to pull his punches. It is difficult
to imagine a more focused or fervent
performance than this one; now we just
need to see it in one of our opera-houses!
fortunate to be able to attend the premiere
and one of the only two performances
of this opera at the Norwich Triennial
Festival in October 1997. Miss Julie:
Judith Howarth, Jean: Karl Daymond,
Britten Sinfonia cond. Nicholas Cleobury.
The performance was directed by Benjamin
Luxon who songs in the above recording.